AEA Actors Equity Association, AFTRA American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Allison Page, dancing bear, employment, film, Megan Cohen, NEA National Endowment for the Arts, Osmosis, PianoFight Productions, SAG Screen Actors Guild, SF Opera San Francisco Opera, theatre, unemployment, unions
“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
– Leo Tolstoy, Семейное счастье (Family Happiness), 1859
It’s my own fault, really. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. I mean seriously, why should I have thought that after five years of unemployment that I’d suddenly get a job for which I’d applied? Just because I’d gotten farther in the interview process with this big-name tech company than I had with any other over past five years; just because I’d not only passed their pre-hiring exam, but did so – as I’d been informed – in record time and with “amazing answers”; just because I’d been talking with an actual human being after years of automated e-mail replies… Just because all of that happened didn’t mean I was, y’know, actually gonna get this well-paying job with great benefits. Silly me. After weeks of actual human communication with this company, I suddenly got an automated message saying that they would not be proceeding.
Oh, and here’s the kicker: we’re only two months into the year 2014 and within those two months, the above scenario has occurred three times. Where are those Futurama “Suicide Booths” when you really need ‘em?
I say that in jest, of course. Still, you must understand that there’s a certain level of frustration that comes with being denied a job at which you would not only excel, but for which you are vastly overqualified. There isn’t a single company out there whose customer support department has anything I don’t know like the back of my hand. The fact that I haven’t been hired by one is a bit disheartening. The fact that I also haven’t been hired by Starbucks is mental. I’m starting to think there are forces conspiring against me to keep me unemployed. Why else would they string me so far along in the interview process just to pull the rug out from under me right as I’m on the verge of being hired? And at the start of a year when I’ll really need the income because I’ll likely be moving? Curse you, HYDRA!
So with all the cold shoulders I’ve gotten from potential employers, lo these past five years (oy), what nerve do I possibly have to be hopeful – optimistic even – about what the future holds? Well, maybe it has something to do with the fact that I just had a reading for a rarely-produced script that could possibly lead to a major local production. Maybe it’s because I was just part of a reading for a funny new script that will be produced later this year. Maybe it’s because I’ll begin rehearsals for The Crucible, a play I’ve wanted to do since highschool, at the end of this month. Maybe it’s because I just finished shooting a star-studded-but-intimate local independent film. Maybe it’s because I recently got not one, but two unsolicited requests to be a director. And maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m about to write a few full-length scripts that I’ve been pondering for quite some time now.
With all of the “real” employers treating me like a dog turd, the call for my artistic talents is surprisingly high of late. If only I could make a living off of that. (Yes, I’m finally getting to the question I promised to answer at the end of my last job-related post.
If you’re in the arts and use social media, chances are you saw this article posted on quite a few friends’ walls this past January. It argues that artists – specifically theatre artists like myself – should be paid for our work and paid well; that our contributions, whilst different than those of the construction that built the performance space, are still apt and that we always be compensated for them. This isn’t the first time this argument has come up, nor shall it be the last. But – as has been pointed out time and again by people wiser than I – it’s not that simple; not for producers, venues, or performers.
Let’s start with the whole thing of what constitutes a “real job”. I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of YouTube’s recent crackdown on what-it-claims are copyright violations amongst its users. These new restrictions have come down particularly hard on on-line critics who post their reviews on YouTube: the mere presence of copyrighted content – even when the reviewer is fully abiding by Fair Use media rules – is now cited. This makes it hard for video game and film reviewers who make frequent use of such clips. One such reviewer, “Angry Joe” Vargas whose reviews I love, came out against these new restrictions, saying they threaten his livelihood (four years prior he gave up a regular full-time job to dedicate all of time to on-line review).
As is often the case, I recommend you do not read the comments beneath any of video game articles; I read them so you don’t have to. When I recovered my sanity, what stuck with me was how many people glibly responded that Joe should “get a real job”. Because if you’re not doing something that lasts a minimum of eight hours, pays little, and leaves you dead inside, it isn’t real work – right? God forbid someone take something they really love and not only want to make a living off of it, but also have the chutzpah to do that very thing. It’s one of those things your guidance counselor often told you about: the moment when you have to decide if you’re going to be a talker or a doer.
Now let’s say you actually want to, well, do. How does one go about that? It isn’t the same as wanting to be an astrophysicist or a cardiac physician – two lines of employment that require extensive education. Hell, I probably have the least amount of education amongst even the youngest of my theatre and film colleagues. Still, conventional wisdom holds that there must be some sort of yellow-brick road to success. Years ago I bought a book called The 7 Steps to Stardom (no, really) which said that the best way to make a living in this business was to: 1) assess and appraise “the product” (ie. you); 2) hone your performance skills; 3) have a damn-good headshot; 4) beef up your resume; 5) get an agent; 6) join the union; and 7) network, network, network.
Numbers 1 – 4 have never been a problem (though #3 is often subject to my financial situation at the time) and it seems as if #7 is all I ever do. But what about Numbers 5 and 6 ? In 2009 I was recruited by one of the top two talent agencies in San Francisco. They’d seen me at an audition and although I didn’t get the job, they wanted me in their talent pool. I thought it was a major win; that the years I’d spent away from acting really were the wrong call; that my talent really would be shown off; that my signing the contract would be the first-of-many-steps toward a $20million film deal, a house in the Hamptons, and personal assistants to brush my teeth for me.
So I signed. I signed and I got excited! I signed and… nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Oh, my agents submitted me for projects, I even went on a few auditions. But for the entire year I was signed to this celestial San Francisco talent agency, I did not land one job. Not one.
I was realistic about why: not enough demand for Black actors and models; the economy of 2009 wasn’t thriving as it once had; maybe they’d already filled their quota of males; etc. It wasn’t a hard decision for me to leave when my contract ended after a year. The split was cordial and I’d like to believe that I could always go back if I were so inclined.
Incidentally, the same year I left the agency was the same year I became a member of a well-reknowned local theatre company with whom I’d previously performed. Like the agency, I was optimistic that my days of incessant auditioning were over; that my quest for plumb parts had come to an end; that I’d finally be part of a theatre family rather than just mooching weed drinks off these folks during after-parties. And, like the agency, I was soon very disappointed.
My first production as a company member was directed by the company’s artistic director, at the time a good friend of mine. Needless to say, our friendship did not survive that production. It didn’t help matters that I was a member of the company for three years and was almost never cast. Given all the work I’d been putting in, I was getting nothing back (the only other company production I’d been in was by an outside director). Once again, it wasn’t a hard decision to leave. The fact that said artistic director has been bad-mouthing me around town only further validates my decision.
The point I’m making with this is that company/agency membership is by no means a guarantee of work. I’ve gotten more work outside of these companies than I ever did as a member of them; before, after, and during my memberships. I can also be passed over on a role just as easily.
So what of unions? Although I’ve kept this blog relatively free of personal politics, let me say that I am very much pro-union. A worker should be paid a living wage for a day’s work, not because the employer is more generous than others. What’s more, I’m pleased to know that SAG, AFTRA, and the AEA guarantee their members are well-compensated for the work they put in.
Having said that, it’s easier to figure out how to get into those unions is more difficult than figuring out the notion of transwarp teleportation. What, no one watches Star Trek? Well, to quote Scotty: “[It’s] like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse.” Like I said before: minds greater than mine have tried to untangle the endless stream-of-red-tape that is union regulation to no avail. The so-called Information Age has provided relatively little assistance as the unions’ websites are often Möbius strips of hair-pulling frustration.
Even if you do figure out the rules, there’s still union dues. My work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl was my first in which I’d been paid and credited as would a SAG actor. As such, when my payment arrived in the mail it included a letter from SAG asking me to join. Joining would require a $3,000 initiation fee with annual membership dues around $200. Since I’m not exactly swimmin’ in cash like Scrooge McDuck, I’m glad that joining is just an option for me, not a requirement.
And what would a living as artist be like? I imagine it’d be like any other form of self-employment: you often set your own hours, but there must be work done and something tangible to show for it. It wouldn’t even have to be something luxurious, just not having to worry about where my next meal is coming from simply because I don’t work a regular 9 – 5. Such a thing is rare in the US (especially here in the Bay Area), but in places like France and the UK it’s quite normal – though not without headaches. Whilst we here in the States have just recently filled the long-vacant head chair of the NEA, other countries are treating their artists like valuables they don’t want to lose.
Me and my friends often ponder what we’d do if we were given access to funds to make a major impact with our art. After joking about sitting around doing nothing, but with more expensive snacks (hey, what else are you supposed to do with a MacArthur grant? In fact, who’s up for a train ride?), we often ponder the formation of some kind of facility/residence for local artists. A place where they could hone their craft with state-of-the-art equipment, improve it due to the constructive criticism of their fellow artists, and rest for the night in a comfortable place not too far from where they work. That’s what I’d do if I won this Kenneth Rainin grant. It’s a lot like the artistic utopia Francis Ford Coppola described when he was a guest on Inside the Actors Studio (and apparently was central to his unproduced screenplay Megalopolis). The fact that my good friends at PianoFight actively creating something akin to that warms my heart.
In that same episode, Coppola gives one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard: “If you ever want to know who’s running the world, just look and see who’s hiring all the artists.” What if it were other artists? Could you imagine?
It’s possible that I’ve gotten off-topic here, but such is the way my mind works. Although my “real” employment prospects have only slightly improved over the past five years, the fulfillment I get from my artistic ventures makes me incredibly optimistic for what the future may hold. In addition to what I said above, the fine folks at the SF Opera have requested me to work with them for a third straight year. Other upcoming projects include a major voice-over job, the aforementioned directorial opportunities (with more to possibly come), one possible play in the middle of the summer, one definite play this autumn, and – wouldn’t you know it – I reached out to a “real” employer who read my blog and it opened up the possibility of regular work. How ‘bout that?
I can’t say for sure what my next “Osmosis” entry will be about, but if there’s one thing I personally take away from this entry, it’s the knowledge that accreditation is not synonymous with skill. I’ve done “real” work with people with degrees, but had no idea how to apply them in the real world. I’ve worked with actors whose union payments are so regular you could set your watch to them, yet they were some of the worst performers I’ve ever seen. I am not my resume. Rather, I am not only my resume. Thriving in the arts keeps me ever aware of that and it’s great to know that in this arena I can always prove myself through doing rather than saying. I don’t have a degree, but I can do everything required of a dancing bear. And who doesn’t love a dancing bear?